Monday, July 12, 2010

North Korea and the black swan

I met some real-live North Koreans on Friday. These are the most normal North Koreans I've seen, the others being a wealthy, plump woman in Hong Kong that presumably lived in Japan and delicate waitresses exhibiting all the style of the 1970s at a restaurant in Beijing. They are now, of course, South Koreans after having defected from North Korea about 5-8 years ago. It's probably a tribute to media conditioning that I was struck at how human they were.

At one point someone asked a question about the worldwide impression of North Koreans as crazed, bee-like conformists that worship their leader with a religious intensity. "They're no more intense in their devotion than South Korean Christians," replied one defector, a former computer science professor in North Korea.

The other near-obligatory question was about the prospects of Korean reunification and the end of North Korea's Kim dynasty. The professor replied that he didn't think it would happen through force, but that it would happen peacefully. If you peruse the world of English-language blogs dedicated to North Korea (One Free Korea, North Korean Economy Watch and DailyNK are among the best), you'll eventually come to realize that much of the discourse about North Korea is guesswork.

The most important prediction is when the North Korean government will fall. A variety of academics, politicians, military officials and other relevant personnel, both Western and Asian, will have their predictions about the North Korean government's imminent demise printed. Some predict it will happen this year, next year, in the next three years, the next five years, and so on. Few diminish their own importance by predicting this to happen more than five years from now.

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Talib discusses black swans, highly improbable events that defy inductive reasoning. "All swans are white" used to be a staple of medieval logic until they found black ones. Experts are particularly bad at predicting black swans according to Talib, notably in fields such as economics or politics. Recessions and important historical events come as complete shocks to those who should have seen them coming.

The historical black swan most relevant to North Korean prognostication is the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was a secretive state whose collapse by and large took most experts by surprise. The demise of the current North Korean will not catch anyone by surprise, but that's only due to the broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day phenomenon. We have been predicting that North Korea would go under for years now, from the famine to the unrest after the famines to the prominence of markets to the revaluation of currency to the current succession issues.

Many supposed experts miss the signs of a coming collapse because they're attached to a particular form of black swan. Some predict that the North Korean government will fall in the most romantic way, through a popular revolt. Others predict generals or factions fighting each other, still others guess that a weakened government might just give up in the way the Soviet Union simply let itself dissolve. Everyone has a theory and in looking for information to prove their own theory, they miss other clues.

Though many groups, particularly DailyNK, do excellent work in obtaining information from North Korea at a variety of levels and in a variety of locations, the near-absence of information makes it virtually impossible to analyze the situation. There are so many unknowns that any scenario or analysis is simply a scenario at best, or a notch above fan fiction at worst.


lolyper said...

totally agree! Thank you for posting.

Adeel said...

Thanks for reading!